Monday, May 13, 2019

Standing in Ada's Shoes

It's Monday morning. Eight am. I'm home now, sitting at my very messy desk, drinking coffee from my favorite mug. Yesterday I spent on an airplane, pretty much. The day before that--Saturday--I had one of the most amazing and loveliest experiences of my author life.

We were in County Durham, which is the far northeast of England, for the final day of our trip. We went there simply because it was a part of England we'd never explored before, and it was pretty close to other places we knew we wanted to be. It was a sort of extra day. My husband looked the area up online and saw that they had a 300-acre living history museum called Beamish. I love living history museums. I warned him that I would want to see the Whole Thing, and we did.

They had an 1820s era village, complete with church, working farm, and one of the earliest versions of a steam railway. (The engine we saw running was an exact replica of one they still have, but don't run, from 1813). They had a 1900s town, and also, separately, a 1900s pit village with an open drift mine and a working steam winding engine from 1855, one of the last of its kind still functional. The colliery was fascinating; a man there gave us a detailed and fascinating demonstration of the enormous steam engine in action. I learned a lot in that area.

They had a 1940-era working farm. Like the main house in the 1820s area, and the drift mine, the buildings were original to the site, and dated back a few hundred years, but it this case they were furnished and set up as though the inhabitants were living in 1940, during World War II, on the English home front.

It was Ada's world.

It was Lady Thorton's gamekeeper's cottage, and the Elliston's farm. A perfect combination. One of the two houses really had been a gamekeeper's cottage. The other really had been the home farmhouse on an estate farm. The front door of the farmhouse opened directly into a large room, with a sofa and chairs clustered around a coal fire on one side, a large table on the other, and a kitchen just beyond. Upstairs in the gamekeeper's cottage, one bedroom was larger than the one Ada and Maggie shared, but oh so familiar--two painted iron bedsteads, a wardrobe, a rug on the wood floor. I went to the window, pushed aside the lace curtain-the blackouts were down--and there, as I live and breathe, was Mrs. Rochester.

They had a square wood pen in the back garden. Inside the pen was an enormous black and white sow. Mrs. Rochester--the pig from TWIFW.

I nearly couldn't believe it, but it got better. We went out the back door, by the kitchen--and there was the Anderson shelter. Covered in dirt, as it would have been, with Jamie's hens roosting on top.

I lowered myself inside. I was wearing a sprig of lavender I'd been given earlier in the day. The Beamish Anderson shelter wasn't very damp--all Anderson shelters tended to be damp, as they were set three feet down into the ground--but it still smelled faintly of damp. I breathed in, and the smell of damp combined with the smell of lavender--which Susan hung inside the shelter in TWIFW, so the damp smell wasn't so triggering to Ada. I stood there smelling what Ada smelled, and for just a moment I felt her, viscerally as never before, the panic and the fear and her shining courage. I was physically standing in a world I created, inside my fictional character's head, only it was also entirely real.

I was so overwhelmed I had to sit and drink some Bovril to recover. (I am not making that up.) (They were selling hot Bovril.)

Anyway, it was--I'm at a loss for words, never a good thing in a writer. I want to say the coolest, the most amazing, but that's not quite what I mean.

It was holy.

Also? I totally nailed it.

Today is Ada's 90th birthday, and as you all know, because I've told you so many times, Parnassus Bookstore is having a 24-hour online fundraiser for my nonprofit, the Appalachian Literacy Initiative. You can order anything at all from Parnassus today, May 13th, using the code BOOKJOY, and ALI will get 10%. Pro tip: buy ALI a gift card--for every ten dollars you give, we'll actually get eleven!

Access to books is a social justice issue. The Appalachian Literacy Initiative puts books in children's hands.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Will you Buy a Book, for Yourself and Ada?

Ada turns ninety years old on Monday.

Ada Smith, the character of my heart, the prickly stubborn girl from The War That Saved My Life.

Ninety years old. She's still alive. Still thriving.

I've carried on and on about how I believe access to books is a social justice issue. It's simple. Children with access to books learn to read much better than children without. Children who read better do better in life. Poor kids lack access to books.

Give them books, and change the world.

That's why I created my nonprofit, Appalachian Literacy Initiative. We're putting books into children's hands. I'm super proud of what we're doing, and super pleased to be partnered with Parnassus Bookstore in Nashville. Not only does Parnassus get us books at a discount, they're running a fundraiser for us.

On May 13th ten percent of all online orders will go directly to ALI.

You can buy anything at all--any book you like. You can buy gift certificates or subscriptions to Parnassus's signed First Editions club. And you'll be helping a kid find joy in reading.

Buy a book in Ada's honor. Buy something you've been wanting to read, and help a child get a book they want to read, too.

And! This is really, really important: when you order online at Parnassusbooks.net, be sure to add the code BOOKJOY. That's how ALI gets credited.

And thank you.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Off to Cheer For the Game of Thrones Guy

Well, here I am, dusting off my passport. Tomorrow I leave for England and the Badminton Horse Trials. This is a bucket-list item for me. Last summer, when some friends from Scotland were visiting, we discovered that they'd always wanted to see Badminton too (by which I'm pretty sure I mean, Lesley always wanted to see Badminton, and Calum, like Bart, is willing to go along). So we made plans. Pretty soon they morphed into absolutely excellent plans, as we're staying at an Airbnb in Bath, a city I've always wanted to explore (hello, Jane Austen!) and afterwards heading up to Leeds so the boys can golf. Lesley got tickets for a history of clothing museum, something that's right up my alley, and we're planning to eat and drink spectacularly well.

It's nuts to do two amazing trips like this back-to-back, but that's how it worked out: the golf invitation had a certain time attached to it, and of course Badminton is always the first weekend in May.

OK. I'll back it up for the majority of you who don't know what the heck I'm talking about. Badminton is the grandmother of all three-day events, the biggest and hardest competition of my lovely esoteric sport. It takes place at Badminton, the estate of the Duke of Beaufort. From pretty much every measure it's the most difficult event in the world, this is its 70th year, and cross country day attracts something like 250,000 spectators, because in England the sport and this event are big deals. Badminton accepts entries based in part on how important you are--they run 89 pairs, and keep a ranked wait list. Last week the entries closed. One rider, Ingrid Klimke, dropped out, and another took her place, and now the field is set. There are exactly two Americans, neither of whom I know at all, which is odd because our sport is so small that I really do know a lot of the top American athletes. Tamra Smith is based in California, and Jenny Caras is currently based in England, and I've never met either of them. I wish them well, of course, but from a personal level I'll be rooting for Mark Todd, the King of All Eventing, and also for Jim Newsham, better know as the Game of Thrones guy.

I've read several of the Game of Thrones books but not watched one minute of the HBO series. However, last summer I found myself in a part of Northern Ireland where chunks of the series were filmed. My daughter met the man who directs the sword fighting, and got to see several of the named swords--she swung one around, which made the man nervous. (Understand that this wasn't some official GofT event. We happened to be walking around this ruin, and two guys happened to be practicing mock sword fighting. My daughter stopped to watch, and things progressed from there.) Anyway, the day after that, my husband went to golf, and my daughter and I went to ride. There was a stable in the town that offered two-hour rides through a lovely forest, only to adults who were competent riders.

Now, you need to understand something about the Irish. They lived under English oppression for so long that they're genetically compelled to take the wind out of anyone who tries to impress them. Tell an Irishman you can ride any horse at all, and he will set out to find one that you can't, even if you're paying him for the honor. Don't brag to Irishmen is a cardinal rule.

On the other hand, there are a lot of ignorant tourists in the world, who truly believe that because they once sat an ancient placid nag in a paddock they know how to ride. So it's a fine line, explaining that you really do know how to handle a horse without bragging on yourself. I usually let my well-worn paddock boots do the talking. Show up in gear that has seen a couple of years of use, and I look as though I know one end of a horse from the other.

So it was. We pulled up and parked in a small yard with a typical Irish set of stables--a low row of tin-roofed stone buildings cobbled together higgledy-piggledy. No apparent pastures--those turned out to be about a block away. A woman a bit older than me walked over, looked me up and down, sighed, and said, "You do ride, don't you?" I nodded. "I'll just get some other horses," she said.

"What's that?" asked my daughter, getting out of the car.
"We qualified for an upgrade," I said.
"Ah."

While the woman and her husband brushed off a different, presumably less nag-like, set of horses I had a peek inside the buildings. Several contained stalls with large, study cobs--exactly the sort of horses I'd expect to take on a two-hour hack through a forest. Then I stepped inside another building, and gasped. There was a prince among horses--a tall, gleaming, bay Irish Thoroughbred, well-muscled, excellent bone, up on his toes. Stunning. He was as like the other horses as a Ferrari is to my minivan.

We started off, the woman, my daughter, and I. Turns out that the horses the woman and my daughter were riding had both been used in Game of Thrones. The forest we rode through was used in a big chunk of filming, and the woman's son, she told us, was a stunt rider for the series.

My daughter told her that we were eventers. She smiled, and said her son was an eventer, too. "Rather a good one," she said. "He rode at Badminton last year."

So that was the gorgeous bay--a Badminton horse.

I told her that I was planning a trip to Badminton. "I hope some of my friends will compete," I said, "if not I'll cheer for your son."

"If he goes next year," she said. In horses nothing is certain.  It's bad form to pretend otherwise.

We went on to have a perfectly lovely ride. Like me the woman had been a pony club DC. She and my daughter traded pony club and eventing stories as we rode. (Eventing stories are like fishing stories, except that they're usually true. You can't make this sh*t up.)

Anyhow, her son is Jim Newsham. His lovely horse is Magennis. Join me in wishing them well.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

France. Golf. Notre Dame.

I'm home. I'm staring at my novel manuscript willing it to turn into something more cohesive. I'm listening to the robins in the budding trees outside. (The barn swallows are back! Our last marker of spring. I love the barn swallows so much. I always feel bereft when they leave in the fall.)

I was in France, and it was fantastic. I studied and studied the Chateau de Chenonceau, which will be the setting for an upcoming book. I bought a large stack of research books at Shakespeare and Company, the English-language bookstore on the left bank in Paris. Shakespeare and Company is British run, with primarily British books and a heavy emphasis on French history and culture. It was at Shakespeare and Company, two years ago, that I purchased the book that has saved us a whole bunch of money in France ever since: the one that taught me the magic words, "un carafe d'eau." You see, in France the restaurants don't just hand out drinking water. They ask you, usually in perfect English, whether you prefer plain or sparkling water. You can try to say, "plain plain," or "not in a bottle," or whatever else you like, but their English never extends far enough to understand. They bring you a sealed bottle of plain water and charge you six bucks for it. And you're thirsty, and there's nothing you can do. We've tried asking for jugs of water. Pitchers of water. Nope. Then I read the book. "Un carafe d'eau, s'il vous plait." It's wonderful. You get a container of plain water for which you are not charged. Sounds like a small thing, I admit, but those six dollar bottles add up.

Anyway. Clearly, I digress. On Friday, our only day actually spent in Paris, I required my husband to go immediately to Shakespeare and Company so I could bookshop, even though I knew I'd be buying more books than I would want to carry around all day, and even though we had dinner reservations at a restaurant a block away from the bookstore. We went to the left bank, bought books, returned them to our hotel, went out for more exploring, and then, later, went right back to the same part of the left bank for dinner. It would have been infinitely more efficient to buy books on the way to dinner, but it would have made me anxious. What if I didn't have browsing time enough? Thankfully, my husband knows who he married. He even helped carry the books.

Meanwhile, the day before, we had a glorious sun-soaked day--the first good weather day of our trip--on my husband's favorite golf course in the world, a little place not far outside Paris. My husband and son have played there a number of times, but this time I went along, because I wanted to see what all the fuss was about, and also because this particular trip was so important to him. He's had a lot of complications surrounding the knee replacement surgery he had in November. Recovery's been hard, and painful, and for months now his motivation and goal was to walk this golf course on this day in France. We played with a French doctor who's my husband's friend, a lovely man. Back when they were planning the day, Jacques offered to reserve a golf cart for my husband. (The course has a few, but people hardly ever use them.) My husband said, "You will not." He was going to walk the course, as he always does, as he loves to do, every hole. And he did.

It's a funny little gem, a gorgeous rural course, the very essence of golf without snobbery or upmanship. We were on the second or third hole when Jacques took a deep breath, smiled, and said, "My grandparents played here so I've been coming ever since I was a little boy. And still every time I'm here I feel blessed." At one point Jacques smacked a shot over a green onto another, where two French women gave him side-eye as he apologized profusely. When he came back I asked him if there were many woman members. He told me there always had been. "Everyone," he said, with emphasis, "has always been welcome here."

Sounds a little bit like heaven, doesn't it? Meanwhile the cathedral of Notre Dame held. I don't know how--the photographs, the night of the fire, were so awful--we were farther south then, not in Paris. I kept updating my internet feed but my husband got to the point where he could not long look. We are Catholic--sure, if you've read this blog, you know that--and have been to Mass at Notre Dame several times, the first on our honeymoon, most recently Easter Sunday two years ago. I love Notre Dame as a place of worship, but even more as a monument to human imagination, hope, and love. Nearly a thousand years ago hundreds of people set out to build one of the greatest structures of the age. They had to invent technology--they had to rethink architecture. And they knew, all of them, that the building would never be finished in their lifetimes. Craftsmen did the best work of which they were capable for a project they would not see complete. Over and over, for two hundred years. And it stands. Still.

Shakespeare and Company is right across the Seine from Notre Dame. Right now, immediately after the fire, it's about as close as you can get to the cathedral--the bridges and roads are closed all around. I took a photo of my husband on Friday morning, right after I bought all my books, with Notre Dame in the background--a big crane already set up in her forecourt, her roof and spire gone but all the buttresses and most of the stained glass still in place. The day before, on the golf course, my husband walked 28,000 steps. He's healing. Notre Dame will too.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Where Have I Been?

Phew.

Yesterday, as I do most Thursdays, I met my husband for lunch. I sat down at the table across from him and said, "I remembered to take the trash down this morning!"

"Congratulations!" he said, with true, non-ironic sincerity. Then he said, "Wait, what day is it? Is it Thursday?"

(Please note that Thursday has been Trash Day and Lunch Date Day for at least the last 15 years.)

Then yesterday evening we went out to our front porch with glasses of wine. "Oh!" I said, grabbing my iPad to check, "I think one of my friends had a book birthday today. You know how new books always come out on Tuesdays."

"Kim," my husband said, "it's not Tuesday."

We're a little upside down, the both of us.

Half an hour ago I hit "Send" on the latest draft of my latest book, due today, so please note I'm a few hours early. I had to work like crazy to meet this deadline, and I'm really happy with the work I've done, and I've got lots more stuff coming up really quickly. Tomorrow I leave for Indiana and my final school visit of the year (I have family in Indiana I'll be visiting on Sunday), which will be Monday. Tuesday I fly back from Indiana. Wednesday I leave for France. That's a research trip. (Pro tip: so far as possible, arrange to do research in exotic locales.) In theory, I'll return to my editor's notes on the draft I just submitted, and, again in theory, I'll get another revision completed before May 1st--which is the day I leave for England.

Last week I was in Dallas for two days of school visits, which were lovely.

I had a very quiet winter. It seems like a long time ago.

Meanwhile, we are just about to order the last round of student books for the first year of Appalachian Literacy Initiative. It's gone so very well. In preparation for setting the list of books for next year's classes, I asked our enrolled teachers how well this year's books suited their students.

From St. Clair Elementary, Bulls Gap, TN: "I honestly loved the book selection. From a personal stand point I found the students were more interested in the less popular books. It seemed the books that are not advertised so highly at book fairs and things of that nature were more interesting to the students. It also opened up a chance to read books our library did not have."

From Ketron Elementary, Kingsport, TN: " I have a deaf student this year and El Deafo was especially relatable for him."

From Chamberlain Elementary, Charleston, WV: "Let me tell you what a wonderful experience this has been for my students and myself.  They have such pride in their books and they have read every single one of them.  They were so excited when they found out the books were theirs to keep in their own personal library.  The books ended up meetings the needs of my students, all of them, no matter what reading level they were on this year. 

Overall, the students liked all the titles and I was surprised of some of their choices when choosing a book.  My students really loved the graphic novels.  They even shared them among the group."

I know I talk a lot about ALI on this blog. There are a couple of reasons for that. One is that I'm passion about increasing children's access to books. Another is that I'm very proud of our program. But a third, to be perfectly frank, is that we don't have quite enough in our bank account right now to pay for the last set of books. I'm confident we'll work it out. We've done pretty damn good so far. At our first board meeting I floated the idea of enrolling 20 classrooms in our first year, and I still remember the skeptical looks I got--I was really reaching. And then we got so many applications that in the end we accepted 28 classrooms, with absolutely no idea how we were going to fund our year. We hoped our 501(c)3 status would come through quickly enough that we would be eligible for some grants--it didn't. (We do have that status now, and are applying for anything we can find for next year). But hey--we've paid for 2566 gorgeous new books so far. It's been a wonderful year.

If you’d like to support the work that we’re doing, you can mail a check to Appalachian Literacy Initiative at PO Box 3283, Bristol, TN 37625, or click here to purchase books on our wishlist from Parnassus Books, our preferred bookstore. You’ll receive 10% off with the code GIVEREADING, and Parnassus will ship the books to us free of charge. You can also purchase books from our Amazon wishlist by clicking here


Monday, March 11, 2019

Staying. For Now.

So. I've spent the week doing a lot of things--visiting my editor in New York City, watching my daughter fence at the NCAA Regionals, walking and reading and learning about all sorts of new things, as I do every time I travel. I've also spent a lot of time thinking about religion and my place in the Catholic church.

If I left, I'd join the Episcopal church. I've always loved it. One of my best friends, growing up, was the daughter of an Episcopal priest in my hometown (the friend is also herself now an Episcopal priest, as well as a nun--yes, Episcopals have nuns--and my daughter's godmother, and still one of my dearest friends). I'll never forget Sunday mornings with Sarah and her sisters in the front pew of her father's church. The Episcopal Mass is very nearly the same as the Catholic Mass, except for small differences in translation, probably made a hundred years ago. Sarah and I would be giddy with exhaustion, having once again stayed up all night long, and I'd be reciting prayers and responses on autopilot, from memory, when suddenly I'd say one word and the entire congregation would say another. It was like hitting a speed bump fast. I'd jerk my head up, then start again, mumble, mumble, mumble, BUMP. Sarah's little sisters would be beside themselves with glee. Mumble mumble BUMP.

I loved being part of that household. I love worshiping with Sarah now. Her order prays several times a day, and when I'm visiting her I join them. I was at Sarah's ordination, and participated in her very first Mass. So for me this wouldn't be much of a leap.

There's a lovely Episcopal church in Bristol. I have many friends among the congregation and even before I wrote my blog post last week they've made it clear they'd welcome me there. So last week, for the first time, I really started to consider changing churches.

It filled me with grief.

I can't articulate why. I'm not really even very worried about why. I am upset and unhappy with my Church, and I am letting myself be unhappy.

Then the next day was Ash Wednesday. One of my Episcopal friends in my yoga class quietly told me what time the services were at Emmanuel. But somehow I still wanted to be at St. Anne's.

Ash Wednesday is one of my favorite religious days because it seems to really count for something. Catholics have all these holy days of obligation, only now some are obligated and some aren't---New Year's Day is a holy day of obligation unless it's too close to Sunday, or sometimes it is for one of my regular churches (diocese of Richmond) but not the other (diocese of Charlotte) which makes no sense, frankly. Catholics are all supposed to attend Mass on holy days of obligation. Ash Wednesday isn't one--but tons more people make the effort to get themselves to church. It feels important to do so.

So I went to Mass, the day after I wrote my angry blog post last week. I got to St. Anne's a titch late and the church was so full I had to sit in the choir loft. It felt like home, being there. It wasn't comfortable, but it felt like the place I should be.

I still have lots of things I want done differently in my Church. I'm still angry. I've been reading about what a lot of other Catholics have to say about this. One of my favorite columns is Steel Magnificat, over at Patheos.com. A few days ago, the author, Mary Paluzzo, wrote a Lenten meditation on Christ as a victim of sexual abuse--not metaphorically, but actually. Actual Jesus sexually abused.

I found it powerful and good. Other readers were horrified. It's worth going back and looking at the original piece, and the comments, but what I want to share here is Mary's follow-up post. Why is it disturbing to think that Jesus may have been sexually abused? Because we're so used to blaming victims? Because we can't bear to talk about this problem?

The time has come to talk, of course. The perpetrators need to repent. The victims need to be heard. One of my friends asked me last week, did I think there would be a time when the Church needed to move on? Sure--and we are no where near that point. We have barely begun.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Catholics: Wanting Not Only the Truth but the Whole Truth, and Repentance

Yesterday the Catholic church made me angry. Today it's making me angry again. I'm trying to figure out exactly what I want to do about it. I've always thought that the best way to change an organization is to work within that organization. I'm not sure what kind of power, or responsibility, I have.

Yesterday it was the homily during Mass. (Bristol friends: I was at St. Bernadette's, near our mountain home in North Carolina. I have no idea what Fr. Chris said at St. Anne's. I'm not talking about anything he said or didn't say.) The priest,Fr. Gober, who I usually like, touched briefly--very briefly--on Catholic clergy who have committed sex crimes. He said something like bishops, even Cardinals, doing things that are immoral, even criminal, in nature--and then immediately segued into how other people are also sexually abusive, from all sorts of different religions, and also we as laypeople have to be sorry for our sins, too.

And I thought, for about the sixty-seventh time this year, they still don't get it. Priests don't get it. Bishops, Cardinals, the Pope--nope. Not getting it.

What if we discussed fidelity in marriage in that way.? "Honey, I know I was unfaithful, but lots of other people are unfaithful in their own marriages, too." Oddly enough, I don't think it would help. Nor would it help if your unfaithful spouse assured you that you also sometimes do bad things, like lose your temper or forget to take the garbage down.

Today I'm also angry because the pope just announced that, in a year, he's going to release documents about Pope Pius XII and his role in World War II. Now, why would I be angry about that? There's long been speculation about which side Pius really supported during the war. Did he appear to go along with the Nazis in some things because he was pro-Nazi, or a wimp, or as a smokescreen to hide acts of espionage? There has always been limited evidence on both sides. I've always wondered about this myself, since I'm interested in history. I saw an exhibit about Pope Pius XII at Yad Vasem, the holocaust museum in Israel, when I was there last year, and even it said the evidence was murky and inconclusive.

So why am I angry that the current pope is releasing documents about Pius? Because it means that the Church has had documents that they've been hiding for years. The Church--the official church, the men who run the Vatican--has known the truth all along. It feels exactly like the abuse cases. Secret files and cover-ups.

I'm still working out exactly what I need from my church for me to stay a member. It breaks my heart, but right now I'm not sure I can remain. So. For starters: I want to be told the truth. I don't want excuses. I want repentance--from Fr. Gober at St. Bernadette's, from Fr. Chris at St. Anne's, from every single priest still under Holy Orders. Real, spoken-from-the-pulpit, "Priests hurt children and were protected by a conspiracy of lies and coverups. As priests we bear part of the blame because we did not fight against this silence, this omission of truth. We are deeply sorry."  That's a starting point for what I want.

I don't believe either Fr. Gober or Fr. Chris have sexually abused children. But they are part of an institution that did, for years, and then lied about it, to their own people, for years. They bear clerical responsibility. I hope they come to understand that. I hope they apologize.

I'm not holding my breath. Like every other Catholic layperson, I've learned not to.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Why ALI?

I'm hanging out at my computer with my dog on my lap. She's gotten to where she pretty much overlaps my lap, but there are men on my roof tearing off all the shingles and the only way the dog can cope with the disturbance is to cleave tightly to me. So we're making it work.

I just got a phone call from my family nurse practitioner. She said, "Did you know that you're famous, like the President?"

I did not know that (nor have I, to my knowledge at least, previously been compared to Mr. Trump) but I did dream last night that I was shaking all the presidents' hands, starting with Reagan and G.H.W. Bush.

"Were you in heaven?" my husband inquired, when I told him about it this morning.

"No," I said, "I was at a Notre Dame football game."

Of course, in our house, that's pretty much the same thing.

I'm famous like the President according to my family nurse practitioner's young daughter, who is desperate to get some of my books signed by me, so what time will today's book signing run to?

It's from four until six, at Blackbird Bakery in downtown Bristol. I'll speak briefly at four, but will absolutely stay until at least six to sell books and sign them and chat with anyone kind enough to stop by. We're also selling cookies. Blackbird is stuffed with pastry goodness, as everyone in Bristol full well knows, but they did a special run of iced sugar cookies for us to sell in benefit of Appalachian Literacy Initiative, the reason for the whole shebang and my heart's most fervent cause.

I was just now, before the phone call but after the dog, looking through the notes I made for the speech that really sparked ALI. It was in fall 2016, and I gave a presentation at the Tennessee Association of State Librarians on the importance of diversity in children's books. I started off with racial diversity, and then spoke on economic diversity in literature, which I thought then and still believe to be another important issue. In Tennessee one-third of the schoolchildren live in families that get SNAP benefits (often called food stamps), but you almost never see SNAP benefits mentioned in fiction. If they are, it's that the family is too proud to accept them, or used to get them back when times were really bad. No one ever gets them now. That has always annoyed me, so I did some research, and then I went straight beyond annoyance into incredulity, and then to a sort of social justice awakening.

If you've read this far and you really want to know where I get my information, I'll refer you to Donalyn Miller and Colby Sharp's new book, Game Changer, which gathers all the research into one easy-to-find and read volume. Essentially it's this: the ability to read fluently is the bedrock to academic success. The ability is read fluently depends upon access to books. For a variety of reasons, children from low-income families have much less access to books than their higher-income counterparts.

Children from low-income families are 250% less likely to read fluently then their classmates from higher-income families. Poverty is the single greatest predictor of academic failure.

Access to books is a social justice issue.

I came away from that conference pleased by the success of the presentation but greatly troubled by the results of my own investigation. Over half the schoolchildren in Appalachia get free or reduced-price school lunch. Many of the schools themselves are poor beyond middle-class imagination. Many of these children don't have a single book in their homes, have never once had a single book to call their own.

Here in my office, my dog and I are surrounded by a couple of hundred books. There are more in every single room in my house. The laundry room has a bookshelf. I'm not kidding. It's full.

My friend Tracy Griffith, who has a farm deep in an old coal community, was equally troubled by the injustice of this. We met over and over, usually at Blackbird Bakery, to figure out what we wanted to do. Eventually we found our format: enroll classrooms in Appalachia. Let all the students choose books. Good, new, shiny-bright books. Fiction and non-fiction, graphic novels, funny novels, stories about dogs and gorillas and injustice. Trust the students to pick the books they needed. Let them keep the books forever, read them over and over until the shiny covers tore and dulled.

We've given away 2398 books this school year so far. Diary of a Wimpy Kid was pretty popular--151 copies--and so was Captain Underpants (101), but not as much as The One and Only Ivan (183) or Because of Winn-Dixie (178).

Those kids who ordered Because of Winn-Dixie are going to get a surprise. The books are in transit now--and the author, Kate DiCamillo, has signed bookplates to put in every single one. Authors are amazing. We've had support from so many: Kate and Katherine Applegate and Laura Amy Schlitz just to name Newbery winners. Publishers have given us free books. Our corporate partner, Parnassus Bookstore in Nashville, gives us steep discounts and accepts donations on our behalf. We JUST GOT our official 501(c)3 status (!!!!! retroactive to February 2018, so everyones' gifts were tax deductible) so we will be able to start applying for grants now, but for this year a whole lot of community members and friends, including every single one of our seven-woman board, has been incredibly generous with private donations, which was so amazing, especially since, at the beginning of this year, I made promises to schoolchildren I didn't have the funds to keep.

Anyway, I'm going on again, because I love this non-profit so much. I love giving books. I believe that what we're doing is important. I think we can change the world. Someone's world, at any rate. One child at a time.

Appalachian Literacy Initiative. We put books in children's hands.

So, if you get a chance, head down to Blackbird this afternoon. You don't have to buy anything. Just come say hi. If you can't make it but want to support ALI there are a bunch of other ways. Think of us fondly, at any rate. Think of a book you read when you were ten that opened your eyes and heart. Then find a way to give that book to a child.

If you’d like to support the work that we’re doing, you can mail a check to Appalachian Literacy Initiative at PO Box 3283, Bristol, TN 37625, or click here to purchase books on our wishlist from Parnassus Books, our preferred bookstore. You’ll receive 10% off with the code GIVEREADING, and Parnassus will ship the books to us free of charge. You can also purchase books from our Amazon wishlist by clicking here

Monday, February 25, 2019

The Hill That I'm Willing to Die On

One of the things I've learned well this past year is how many stories aren't mine to tell. I had a great blog post half-written in my head, but realized it had the possibility of making one person--only one--of my acquaintance feel unhappy. Not mortally-wounded-never-talk-to-you-unhappy, but still possibly unhappy to a degree, and although I have no way of knowing whether or not that person has ever once read my blog, it wasn't worth the story.

Not that I mind pissing people off. But I mind meanness, or humor at someone else's expense. I mind sharing private stories that aren't entirely mine. (Lately people tell me things. All sorts of people. All sorts of things. I'm honored by their trust. Won't break it.)

It does all go into my vast mental Rolodex--I guess we need to update that image, let's try vast mental database--of How People Can Be. As a writer I'm always looking to add to this database. It's why I listen to Dr. Laura in the car, when I'm not working on my French.

Anyway between reticence and my new novel I haven't been blogging much. I'm going to work on that because I do have a lot I want to say. But I've been saying it--saying all my truth--in this new novel I'm working on. I realized that on Friday at yoga. I'd given the manuscript to a professor of counseling and psychology at a local college for professional review of some of the content. Said professor also happens to frequent the same yoga classes I do, so she'd brought the manuscript back with her feedback. We talked for awhile, and I found myself saying how important the book was to me. I put my hand on the manuscript and said, "This is a hill I'm willing to die on."

I thought about that again this morning, as I was loading books into the trunk of my car. I don't usually sell my own books, but I am tomorrow, at a fundraiser for my nonprofit, the Appalachian Literacy Initiative. (Blackbird Bakery in Bristol, 4-6pm, everyone welcome, please come). If you look at my writing career it's 17 books, the last 2 being bestsellers. But I know that the success of the last two comes actually from the work I put into the book before that, Jefferson's Sons. Jefferson's Sons was a turning point for me. It took me four years to write it well, but I was determined, above all else, that it be written well. To me that story was too big for mediocrity. It was, in fact, a hill I was willing to die on.

Then came Ada Smith, crippled, ignorant, furious---and my editor's famous comment when she read an early draft: "This isn't really your next book, is it?"

Ouch. But Ada's story was also a hill I was willing to die on. Both parts. That turned out to be good, because I needed every ounce of my stubbornness to persevere through the nine drafts of The War I Finally Won.

Now I'm deep in this new novel--untitled, still, we call it the Della book--and in revisions for the Egypt book. I'm reading and preparing for the book after that, which doesn't have a lot of form yet but which does feature Nazi soldiers and a really awesome ghost. I think after all these books I've finally found my secret: I need to write things I will lay myself down for. I need to write from the top of the hill I am willing to die on.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

A Shout Out to the Bristol Public Library

I love my library so much.

When we first visited Bristol for my husband's job interview nearly 22 years ago, I asked about the public library. To my concern, the doctor with whom my husband was interviewing and his wife exchanged concerned glances. "It's up the road," they said, not volunteering to take me there, and of course I became even more concerned. I didn't need to be. As soon as we got a free moment we found the library, because I can not live where there isn't a decent library, and it was fine. It was small, and antiquated, and the stacks were dark and cold, but it had quite a lively selection of books for a town of this size and was clearly making the best of limited space. The staff, too, were fantastic. Still are. (Though I wish they didn't all recognize me. "I loved TWTSML," one of them said as I was checking out, not long ago. "What are you working on now? Oh, and your fines are up to seventeen dollars and forty five cents.")

Several years ago the library totally outgrew that old building. A lively civic debate followed about where to move it to--it had to be on the Virginia side of town, because of better public funding there (there's a branch in Tennessee); it had to still be downtown, near the shelters, because so many homeless people use the services there. Finally the best solution was simply to tear down the old single-story building and build a new two-store one in its place.

I'm there all the time. The Appalachian Literacy Initiative, my nonprofit, holds its board meetings in the large conference room upstairs. (We used to meet in the small downstairs conference room, but we're loud, and we were annoying one of the regular patrons, who's autistic and often uses the computers near the downstairs room.) I get books by the bagful. I shop at the gift shop (where else can you get cheap romance novels for fifty cents?) I've fallen sound asleep in the comfy chairs in the reading area, and the parrot in the children's department, Citrus, recognizes me and rings her bell when she sees me so I'll give her a treat.

Yesterday I went to peruse the audio/visual department. I'm heading to France in April to do research on a book I just can't wait to write--it's been bubbling inside me for two years--and I'm determined not to show up at the chateau that will be my setting as a typical monoglot American asshat. I had 3 1/2 years of French, in high school, centuries ago, but by golly in April I will speak their language at least a little bit without sounding like a fool.

Years ago, prior to another trip, I'd bought myself a set of 6 "learn French" CDs to play in the car. They're not wholly useless, but they're limited. I never understand some of the decision making that goes into these things. In the unit on "What I like to do" the choices are jogging, (in French that's "jogging"), taking a walk, or wind-surfing. I guarantee you that never in my life will I need to ask the French where I can do a spot of wind-surfing. My wind-surfing days, if I ever had any, are gone.

But anyhow, the time I spend running errands can certainly be usefully employed listening to French, so off I popped to the library, where I found another set of 10 CDs, a different company. Very excellent. That's when I saw, tucked behind the a/v department, our library's new adult learning center. Which includes a 3-D printer and lots of craft supplies. Mmmm. It wasn't open yet (I mean, that morning, I was there early) but I can't wait to go explore. I really want to play with a 3-D printer.

But then, because I was checking out language tapes, the helpful front desk clerk handed me a brochure. Well, heckfire. Turns out there are online language-learning resources available to library patrons. Turns out there's one program available to Tennessee residents, and another to Virginia residents, and as a patron of the Bristol Public Library I count as both.

Oeeee, howdy, these things are the bomb. Both are multifacted--you hear, read, write, and speak. Turns out my work computer, the same machine I'm typing on now, has a built in microphone, and it turns out that some of my basic pronunciation is lousy. Turns out I don't know how to correctly pronounce vous. Which is the formal or plural form of the word you and one of the more basic words in the entire language. The Tennessee program keeps asking you to say the same word over and over until you get it right, so I've just spent half an hour saying, vous. Vous. vous vous vous VOUS Vous! 

Turns out you have to imagine that the s is there even though you don't pronounce it. Kind of like how in Hamilton, there's a line, "Have you read thish?" where you're pretty sure they threw an h onto the word this, you can't quite be sure, but it makes you think they're saying "this shit" even though they absolutely never say the word "shit."

It's a little weird. I mean, clearly the s is actually on the end of the word vous. But it's a silent s. But not entirely. You have to pretend to say it without actually saying it. In the same way, s'il vous plait, which means please, is pronounced almost as though the first l is actually there, but not quite. I'd been dropping it entirely, which makes my computer beep at me and tell me to try again.

I'm also realizing how spotty my vocabulary is. I've known the word for cabbage, chou, forever, but only yesterday encountered laitue, lettuce. I'm struggling over beurre de cacahuetes which means peanut butter.

My husband walked in while I was muttering beurre de cacahuetes to my screen. He asked what it meant (he's had more French than I have, and didn't know either). "Do the French eat peanut butter?" he asked.

"Not to my knowledge," I said. For sure I'm not eating peanut butter within the borders of France. But, by golly, I'll know how to say it when I'm there.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Some of My Friends Got Phone Calls This Morning!

Phew, I just finished watching the web broadcast of the ALA Youth Media Awards. I didn't have a book published this year, which took away any stress about stickers and made watching a pleasure. Plus I'm so pleased for the winners. Some I haven't read yet--I'll be making a bookstore order as soon as I finish this post--and some are books I simply loved.

A Stonewall Award for Julian Is a Mermaid, one of my favorite picture books ever.

A Coretta Scott King author honor for Lesa Cline-Ransome, for Finding Langston, which I was privileged to review for the New York Times, and wholeheartedly loved.

A Printz Honor for Damsel, which was my personal favorite of all the YA I read last year, because it is so everloving fierce, the antidote to every princess fairy tale--and written by Elana K. Arnold, a friend!

A Legacy award for Walter Dean Myers--I only wish he were alive to receive it in person.

Such lovely Caldecott Honors, and then another win for Sophie Blackall, who also won 3 years ago and has been a friend since the night of the banquet.

The Newbery itself for Meg Medina. I haven't read Merci Suarez yet but I've loved everything Meg has ever written.

Newbery Honors for the Book of Boy, which I don't know but which has been recommended by several friends, and The Night Diary, by Veera Hiranandani, which I have loved since forever. It's Veera's debut, and it's amazing.

I'll tell the story, which I may have told before. Namrata Tripathi, an editor for Dial who now has her own imprint, Kokila, and who I've known and worked with and very much liked for a long time, asked me, just as I was heading out on a two-week book tour, if I'd consider blurbing this debut novel she was working on. From just about anyone else in the world, I would have said I didn't have the spoons to even consider it. I was busy; I was stressed. But it was Nami who asked, so I said maybe, and then Nami sent it to me electronically. I don't like reading books electronically, especially galleys, so I thought, well, maybe can certainly turn into no, and didn't worry about it.

But then I was in the middle of this tour, and I was on a plane seated in the bulkhead, where you can't have any bags by your feet--everything had to be in the overhead bins for takeoff. We were delayed on the ground, and I was sulking, tired, grouchy. All I had was my phone. I took it out and started reading the story Nami'd sent, because I don't have Kindle on my phone so it was actually my only option, and I was even more grouchy because I really hate reading on my phone's tiny screen.

I put my head against the side of the airplane, shielding the screen from the sun, and mentally longed for the plane to take off so I could get my real book down from the overhead bin. Meanwhile I begrudgingly started The Night Diary.

The next thing I knew was the bump of the plane touching down. We'd not only taken off, we'd flown two hours and landed. And now I was even grumpier, because I had to get off the plane, and I hadn't finished the story yet. I tend to get enmeshed in books but rarely do I get so entirely absorbed.

Three years ago--three years and 17 days, it was the 11th of January--I got a phone call on the morning of ALA Youth Media Day. It was fantastic. Today I woke up wondering whose phone was ringing with good news.

Congratulations to everyone. I hear Elana's buying the falafel. 

Thursday, January 24, 2019

The Government Shutdown Harms Babies

For those of you (both of you) wondering Where in the Sam Hill I have Been, the answer is, wallowing under my deadline. Which is Monday.

I'm working hard, and well, and blog posts haven't been a priority. So far for January my priorities have been 1) trying to help my husband through his surgery 2) my manuscript 3) everything else.

I'm starting to put pieces of what I consider my normal life back into the picture. Tuesday I rode my horse. Wednesday I went to both yoga and my shift at Faith in Action. Today I'm writing this blog post. Go me.

We're in day thirty-something of the federal government shutdown, which as far as I can see is just a pissing match with no clear benefit to anyone. So far, to me personally, it's been annoying because I had reason to believe I was on the verge of my nonprofit getting 501(c)3 status right before the shutdown, and because I haven't been able to get some tax forms I need. (The IRS mails them out, instead of allowing them to be downloaded. Whose dumb idea is this?) These are trivial issues. Most of senators and Congressional representatives seem to feel that missing a few paychecks is also trivial, to the eight hundred thousand or so federal employees, many of whom are still working, just not getting paid. It's a nice life when you can imagine that a month without income doesn't mess people up, but it's not a real one. We need some real-world governance around here.

Meanwhile, yesterday I saw an example of the shutdown hurting some of the most vulnerable members of our society. A woman came into FIA seeking help with her electric bill. She'd never been there before. She was roughly 30 years old with a high school degree. Her husband walked out when she was eight months' pregnant with their third child--the other two are preschoolers--and isn't paying any child support. She had her baby two weeks ago and returned to work last week.

Let me say that again. She had a baby two weeks ago and returned to work one week later. At a restaurant. On her feet the whole shift. Because otherwise she'd lose her job. (Her mother watches the children.) (Here's a reason we need more women in government: because anyone who's given birth understands how inhumane that is.)

Her income--which is above minimum-wage, forty hours per week--is insufficient to their needs. Take away bare-bones rent and utilities--nothing more, not car expenses, not diapers, not food--and she's got less than $400 a month left. That was fine when her husband was in the house and working.

Given her situation--I ran the numbers, it's easy to do--she would be immediately eligible for something like $500 a month in food stamps, and WIC for herself, the infant, and at least one of the other children. WIC is a supplemental nutrition program that would pay for all the baby's formula, plus healthy food like milk, eggs, fruits and vegetables for the rest of them. It's a voucher program that can only be used for specific healthy foods. She'd probably get $300/month worth of food from it right now. So $800 in food per month for a woman and her three children.

Which she isn't getting, because she can't even apply for these programs because the government is shut down.

The safety net we have in place for people exactly like this--hardworking with dependent children--is on furlough.

You can't be pro-life and not care about this woman's children. You can't be against abortion and at the same time support a system that denies her newborn baby food. (I don't know whether she's breastfeeding, but I highly doubt it. Hard to breastfeed when you're working a shift job full time.) It's time for Washington to quit fooling around.